Just two years ago, the Redskins lost their young offensive coordinator in Sean McVay to the Los Angeles Rams. After a year of two season-ending injuries to quarterbacks Alex Smith and Colt McCoy, Washington now pivots back into the youthful direction after promoting quarterbacks coach Kevin O’Connell to offensive coordinator.
With the move, Matt Cavanaugh remains with the Redskins, shifting to a senior offensive assistant role.
The 33-year-old O’Connell will be one of the Redskins’ top assistants while continuing to climb through the coaching ranks. The former quarterback began his coaching career in 2015, overseeing the Browns’ quarterbacks, but his knowledge of offense and his willingness to learn from the coaches and players he's been around is something he prides himself greatly on.
"I was getting thrown in to the deep end of the pool and knowing you kind of just have to figure it out," O'Connell said. "By the time I got to the [New York] Jets, taking that knowledge and applying it to what we were doing with Brian Schottenheimer, and Bill Callahan, and Matt Cavanaugh you know guys that I’m here coaching with now, just kind of meshing that all together and give you a part whether you’re a first-string guy, I was a backup to Mark Sanchez his rookie year, you do what you can to help him, and you take all that experience and it’s kind of what lead me on the path to coaching."
For O'Connell, the new position has a simple task.
"Being a coordinator in my opinion, it’s about putting the people, your personnel, in situations where they can be successful," he said. "Ninety percent of that in my opinion is the quarterback, and if the quarterback has success, the other ten guys around him if they’re doing their job will feel that success as well."
The Redskins’ quarterbacks coach for the past two seasons, O’Connell received a very unique assignment in 2018. After losing starter Alex Smith and reliable backup man Colt McCoy for the season, the Redskins turned to O'Connell's former Jets teammate Mark Sanchez in an emergency situation.
After a slew of veteran quarterbacks showcased themselves to coaches on the practice fields of Redskins Park, workout veteran and AAF (Alliance of American Football) affiliated Josh Johnson also took his first NFL snaps in seven years. In his first start in the burgundy and gold, Johnson led the Redskins to a crucial 16-13 win in Week 16 against Jacksonville that kept playoff hopes alive.
With four quarterbacks on the roster at the end of 2018, O'Connell showed he was able to adjust his system, and provide a gameplan to any quarterback that was under center come Sunday.
"One of the things that I enjoyed about Alex [Smith], and really Colt [McCoy], was in that room when we came out of Richmond with those two in the room, you really felt like Colt knew how we would play the game without Alex, and could step into that role and play that role," O'Connell said. "Every coaching point Alex got, Colt got. We moved forward throughout training camp, and into the season like that and it allowed us to really prepare for not only when Alex was in the game, but to a man I think we all felt pretty awful about what happened to Alex, and nobody more than me, but then fans and coaches and players and people within the organization saw Colt come in against Houston and do some really good things. We felt like we could maintain that, but you lose Colt and you’ve got two guys coming in that have not been a part of the organization. I was coaching Mark Sanchez, based on what I knew he knew from our time in New York so he would come in on a Tuesday morning at eight a.m. and you’ve got a practice at 11, our played might be called ‘rico-cross’, and in New York we called it this, so it was translating what he knew from New York, into our offense here.”
Managing an offense while understanding each player's role within each play is something New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady does as well as anyone. O'Connell entered the NFL after being selected by the Patriots with their third-round selection in 2008, and he credits his relationship with Patriots offensive mind Josh McDaniels to developing his knowledge of the game.
“I’m still very close to Josh McDaniels, who was obviously a huge reason why I got drafted there," O'Connell said. "He was the quarterbacks coach and coordinator at the time, obviously Tom Brady being there, being around him for a year and a half, almost two years -- it’s not by accident the players that go through there try to emulate what he does. He takes a lot of the reps, and it requires you to do a lot of learning in the classroom, and it requires you to learn an offense where one guys been doing it now, and I mean this was 2008, but you start talking about one guy running an offense for 20 years, I can remember in college running an offense for two or three years and you feel like you have it mastered, so you can only imagine where they have gotten to, and the volume they are able to carry."
There are many options for who will be under center for Washington come Week 1, but one thing is for sure: O'Connell looks to supply an offensive unit with energy, knowledge, and growth to provide a foundation for the next elite burgundy and gold offense.